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8-08-2015, 23:55

The Folks at Home

MILITARY HISTORIANS naturally enough concentrate upon military matters, and especially upon operations; after all, the battle is the payoff, as has been said so often. Increasingly, however, historians recognize that battle history is only the visible tip of the iceberg; it may well be the most exciting part of the story, but it is far from the whole thing. Even within an army or navy, in the middle of a war, relatively few men are involved in actual fighting at any given moment or for any length of time. In World War II, for example, the United States Army developed a strength of nearly nine million men, but only about two million of them were in ground combat forces; it produced a mere eighty-nine divisions, less than Japan, and some of them did not go into combat until the beginning of 1945, when the war against Germany was nearing its end. The naval historian Edward L. Beach has estimated that the entire combat experience of the entire United States Navy, if lumped together, would span only a few hours. Such modern comparisons are of course somewhat invalidated by the ever more complex nature of warfare and the perpetually increasing substructure needed to sustain twentieth-century armies. The proportion of infantrymen in a Civil War army was far greater than in a modern army, but nevertheless, most men in most armies spend most of their time doing something other than fighting. And of course what is true by circumstance for armies is true by definition for the civilian society behind them. It has become increasingly apparent in contemporary society that, to sustain military operations, a state needs the support or at least passive acquiescence of its citizens. Frederick the Great might have thought a good war was one the civilian population remained ignorant of, but that was in eighteenth-century Prussia. That sort of view does not work today, certainly in the United States, as the government discovered with the Vietnam War, or even in the former Soviet Union, as its leaders found out with Afghanistan. An army may be the point of a nation's spear, but without societal support, that spear has no shaft. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln and his government were seriously concerned that that shaft might be broken in their hands. Ironically, this was a problem unique to the North. Jefferson Davis had been elected for a one-time, six-year term. He did not have to run for re-election during the course of the Civil War, though it is interesting to speculate on what might have happened—probably nothing— had he been forced to do so. But Lincoln was required to go to the people and ask for their support for his policies. In the summer of 1864 astute observers thought, and many hoped, that he would be repudiated. ''Lincoln's war," as the Democratic newspapers called it, certainly seemed unpopular enough. Hardly anyone could even remember the early days, when the president-elect had opined that they'd manage somehow, when he had called for 75,000 volunteers for three months' service. Thoughts of those days now seemed so naive, so innocent, so stupid. After three years the fancy uniforms were all gone, replaced by serviceable work clothes; the young heroes were old before their time, hollow-cheeked men of twenty-five who had seen their friends die horrible deaths, and all too many of the belles of Boston and Baltimore were widows before they had the chance to become mothers. 'Sixty-two and '63 had been bad enough, so incredibly worse than anyone had expected, but '64 was proving an absolute nightmare. Day after day after day the papers printed the horrible casualty lists from Virginia, and the trains came home with the wounded, the blind, the maimed. Sometimes it seemed as if the entire North were either in mourning or a vast hospital. And yet, "... I purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer . . . ," and Julia Ward Howe, touring the camps of the Army of the Potomac, had seen the glory ot t Incoming of the Lord. In July, the president issued a call for another 500,000 volunteers. Those who saw him around Washington noted how aged and stooped he looked, as though the entire country were carried on his shoulders. Physically, he was not well, though few knew that; mentally, far more than most, he felt the cost of the war: Dear Madam [he wrote to Mrs. Bixby], — I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement from the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. So many had laid such sacrifices upon the altar of freedom, and in this fall of 1864 the people were to decide, Was it worth it? Was it worth the lives and hopes of those who had already gone, and the unknown numbers yet to be demanded? No! cried the Democrats; the war is a failure! Throw the rascals out! And Yes! cried the Republicans; yes unto the last breath. But the people must decide; in the last analysis, that was what the war was all about. It was certainly an open question in mid-summer of 1864, and the fact that we now know what the people decided obscures the degree of uncertainty that then existed. With the war apparently bogged down in costly stalemate, anti-administration hopes ran high throughout the North. In spite of all the government's efforts to quash opposition, there was widespread disaffection. The draft was universally unpopular, the exemptions and substitutes it allowed even worse. The laboring classes were suffering from inflation, losing status and position even in a time of full employment. The country resented the new taxes, resented the impositions and inconveniences of a wartime economy, tired of the war news, sickened of the butchery. Throughout the North, men asked whether it was not time to stop throwing good money after bad, to stop wasting more lives, to make peace and be done with it. The South had proven itself unconquerable on the field of battle; why not simply recognize what could not be denied, and get on with life? In Northern disarray lay Southern hope. Thinking men in the Confederacy had by now come close to the conclusion that this war was no longer winnable by military means alone; they had long given up hope of some magic foreign intervention, a great loan heralded by the arrival of a British fleet to break the blockade, for example. Their own resources seemed increasingly inadequate to the demands of their task. But they knew—the papers made no secret of it—how rampant in the North was opposition to the war. They had their friends, and their contacts, and they did their best to cultivate the situation. In this they were unwittingly assisted by one of the most difficult of Lincoln's wartime associates, Horace Greeley, the extremely powerful editor of the New York Tribune. The newspapers of the 1860s were the equivalent of today's television journalism, and no more nor less responsible than it. In the days of the written word, Greeley was a power in the land. Unfortunately, he did not know from one day to the next what he wanted to do with that power, and he blew in every direction, like the spring breezes. In the summer of 1864 he was blowing in the direction of peace, and he wrote Lincoln that there were Confederate commissioners in Canada, right across the border, ready to treat for peace, if only the president would receive them. Lincoln correctly assessed the Confederates as agents there to stir up trouble, rather than legitimate emissaries, so with his usual adroitness, he called their, and Greeley's, bluff. Did they have credentials, and peace proposals, in writing, and would Greeley vouch for them? Greeley folded, but nonetheless Lincoln sent his able young secretary, John Hay, to New York to meet the editor, and the two then went on to Niagara Falls, only to find, as Lincoln believed from the start, that it was a sham. About the same time there was a second unofficial meeting, this time between Davis and two Union men, a journalist and a ministerturned- soldier. From this, widely publicized, it became apparent that the Union government would accept nothing short of reunification and emancipation, while the Confederate government would accept nothing short of independence. In other words, they were still stuck on two, or three, irreconcilabilities. There were those who thought that it Lincoln waffled on the principle of emancipation, he might win the other point, of reunion. He himself did not think so, and as a political matter, he believed that to give up emancipation, in the hope of winning over the Peace Democrats, would cost him the anti-slavery Republicans anyway. If he would not sacrifice his principles for some gain, he would certainly not do it for none. One sees here, of course, the evolution of Lincoln as the war went on: from his early insistence that the war was not about slavery; to his painful recognition that it was; to his commitment to emancipation as a useful expedient; to his profound conviction that emancipation was a Good, and slavery was an Evil; this latter to the point where he was willing to stand or fall on it, even that his nation should stand or fall on it. All of these were agonizing transitions, for the president personally, and for the country as a whole. The latter is illustrated in the letters of soldiers, early ones saying they would desert rather than fight for the slaves, later ones acknowledging the changing character of the war, and of their own views of the issues. Confederates missed much of this evolution; they remained convinced that the war was a Black Republican hoax worked upon Northerners, and that the voters of the North would repudiate Lincoln and his gang, and would resoundingly record their unwillingness to die to free the black man. They readily obtained Northern newspapers, and like all people everywhere, they drew from them what they chose to do. If Greeley editorialized that Lincoln could not possibly win reelection, they believed him and quoted him; if Greeley wrote that the war must continue, they ignored him. In a sense they were exiles from their own country, and as all exiles do, they developed an inaccurate view, fixed at some pre-exile moment, of what they had left behind. President Davis might indeed have done more than he did to capitalize on dissent in the enemy camp, but Davis was not very good at the minutiae and million little deals and connivances of everyday politics. He would far rather lecture men on first principles than engage in the handshake, slap-on-the-back, nudge-and-wink kind of politics that was unavoidable in the modern state. He could not woo Northern voters with his humanity, because to the world at large, he appeared not to have any. In fact, that was grossly untrue; Davis's problem was not his lack of human feeling, but rather his total inability to share and show it beyond his small circle of intimates. At the end of April, Davis's young son fell off a balcony of the presidential mansion in Richmond and died; racked by grief, the president manfully continued his duties, trying to pretend nothing had happened. One journalist who observed him closely, though, wrote that he had "the face of a corpse and the form of a skeleton." It was the apparently awkward and ungainly Lincoln, not the austere Davis, who slowly impressed by his humanity and ultimately awed by his principles. One measure of the course of the war was the way Lincoln grew in office, and Davis shrunk. That again is the view of hindsight. In 1864 the Democrats thought they could beat Lincoln, and many Republicans agreed with them. A good many of the latter, indeed, went so far as to suggest that the Republicans should rid themselves of Lincoln, and that they would have a better chance at winning the election if they replaced him with, say, Salmon P. Chase or John C. Fremont, or perhaps General Ben Butler. Chase was the Radical Republicans' first choice, a cabinet member and an ardent abolitionist, and a devious and determined political climber. He, however, tipped his hand too soon, and in spite of substantial support within Congress itself, his campaign to replace the man he had sworn to serve loyally fizzled. Fremont, unemployed since his military defeats in 1862, was a fallback choice for some, but he was always too willing to be used by somebody—by anybody, it seemed — and though he gained endorsement from some splinter groups, he represented no real threat. Neither did Spoons Butler, and thus when the Republicans met in convention in June in Baltimore, Lincoln handily won his party's nomination for re-election, though a number of cracks had to be papered over to do the job. The Republicans nominated as vice president a man who was actually a War Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, and they decided to call themselves the National Union Party to broaden their appeal. They certainly needed to cover themselves as best they could, for the game was there for the Democrats to win, if only they could develop a combination to do it. That was the real rub. It was all well and good to cry, "The war is a failure!" but what did they offer as an alternative? They did not really know. They had some vague ideas that if they stopped the war, somehow all would be well again; the country might be reunited, and everyone could agree that the late unpleasantness had just not happened. It was far from a positive program, and even that was achieved only by diligently ignoring a great many facts, most notably that the war had happened, and that the Confederacy still insisted upon its independence. Their dilemma was underscored by their search for a candidate. Who would possibly be the Democratic standard-bearer against Lincoln? Since they were going to repudiate the war, it would look best if they had a war hero to do it. The extreme Peace Democrats did not want even that, and they did their best to nominate Horatio Seymour of New York, one of the most difficult anti-war state governors with whom Lincoln had to contend. There was, however, a more charismatic figure, and he let it be known he was available: George Brinton McClellan. The man who had once been willing to "become dictator to save the country, and perish by suicide to preserve its liberties," was now willing to become the Democratic presidential candidate. There was one small problem. McClellan wanted to win the war, and then negotiate on the basis of some pre-war situation; the Peace Democrats wanted to end the war, and then open negotiations, and they managed to write a plank to that effect into the party platform when they met in Chicago at the end of August. McClellan, when he accepted their nomination, did so in a convoluted letter that he rewrote several times, and ended up by emphasizing his priority rather than the platform sequence. This was more than a crack that could be papered over; it was a potential chasm, and the nomination of a Peace Democrat, George Pendleton of Ohio, for vice president did little to disguise it. The Republicans gleefully ridiculed the Democrats as "wanting both peace and war—peace with the Confederacy, war against the United States government," and they were not far from wrong. McClellan, to do him credit, quickly felt the false position he was in, and spent most of the campaign trying to square the circle. It would all be up to the voters then, and what did they think about it? Few could tell for sure. The nineteenth century was blessed with the absence of our contemporary polling establishment, so how things were going depended very largely upon what men were saying around the cracker barrel in the store at the crossroads, or in the barbershop, or after church on Sunday. For the Republicans, things did not look good. The country was not happy. The news from the front offered few consolations. Grant was stuck down around Petersburg in Virginia; Democrats could point out that their man had got that far two whole years ago, and with a lot fewer casualties than it had cost Grant. Of course, what their man had done after he got there was another matter, but in a political debate, a lot gets skipped over. Then Sherman was lost God alone knew where down in Georgia someplace, perpetually advancing on Atlanta but never getting there. In July, Confederate forces under Jubal Early swept up out of the Shenandoah Valley once again and raided within sight of Washington itself. Lincoln told people he hoped neither the capital nor Baltimore would be sacked, hardly the remark of a victorious and confident commander in chief. But what did people really think, in the middle of that summer as they went about their daily lives? Could the war be won, could they stay the course, was it worth the effort? Now one looks back at the overriding issue, and because it occupies all our attention, we think it must have occupied all their attention, too. For some, of course, it did; for soldiers, or the families of soldiers, the war was all-consuming, literally a matter of life and death and survival of the family unit. Yet the soldier, who after all wanted to live, might as well vote to end the war as to continue it. And his father at home, who wanted to see his son grow old, might think the best way to ensure that was to vote for a party dedicated to stopping the war immediately. Mothers and wives, who might be thought to have an equal stake in the war, were of course not allowed to vote—though anyone who has ever had a mother or a wife will realize that saying they had no vote is not the same as saying they had no influence. Most observers were pretty sure the military men, or those connected with them, would in fact vote Republican, but what of the rest of the country, all the millions of people who just needed to get on with their day-to-day lives? They might well not support a war to which they could see no end, and in which they could see little profit. These were the people to whom the Democrats appealed. The war is a failure, the war is a waste; "this bloody and expensive war" was a stock phrase of Democratic editorials and oratory. Lincoln and his gang had suspended civil rights, imposed burdensome taxes, wrecked the country, and for what? To free the slaves? To keep South Carolina in a union it wanted to leave? Surely the country deserved better than these abolitionists, fanatics, political charlatans and backwoods yokels. Surely the country deserved George B. McClellan and peace and prosperity. In July and August it looked not only as if that was what the country deserved, but also as if that was what it wanted. The reports Lincoln received from his political managers did not look good. They would almost certainly lose many of the state governments, much of Congress, and they would probably lose the White House too. People were so tired of war and death and destruction; peace was worth almost any price. The electoral campaign was balm for the Confederacy, and it spent a great deal of money to support the Democratic effort. Every anti-war headline and editorial in the North was greeted with jubilation in the South, and in Richmond they made a very simple equation: If the Democrats won the election, the Confederacy won the war. That was all there was to it. From the heights of pre-election rhetoric, Confederates could see victory just down the road. Confederate morale rose to levels it had not seen since before Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Abraham Lincoln agreed with them. In early August Admiral Farragut took his ships into Mobile Bay, closing off completely one of the last few ports in the Confederacy, but even that was not enough to alter the political balance. Lincoln shuffled his cabinet; he got rid of Chase, he got rid of the Radical Blairs, thought to have too much influence over him. His political people damned the Democrats as traitors to the cause and the nation, hinted darkly of Copperhead plots, warned that the opposition was only encouraging the Confederacy to fight longer and harder. All in vain. All paled before the siren song of peace. By late August Lincoln was sure he was going to lose. On the 23rd he wrote his famous little memorandum, which he took into cabinet, had signed, and then tucked away for further reference: This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards. Thus Abraham Lincoln toward the end of the summer. Unless something very dramatic happened to change not only the course of the war, but the public perception of the course of the war, Lincoln was going to lose the election, and if he did, the Union was going to lose the war and all that it represented. Bowed down with care and anguish, the president paced the floor in the dead of the summer nights.

 

 

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